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Monday, June 2, 2008

U.S. Education the Envy of the World
An interesting comment from the Core Knowledge Blog:

U.S. Education the Envy of the World. Really.

Published by Robert Pondiscio on June 2, 2008 in Book Excerpt and Higher Education.

While the United States marvels at Asia’s test-taking skills, Asian governments come to the United States to figure out how to get their children to think.  So says Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek editor.  His new book, The Post-American World, is excerpted in Foreign Affairs.  Zakaria believes the U.S. can continue shaping the world, but only if it can overcome its political dysfunction and reorient U.S. policy for a world defined by the rise of other powers.

Zakaria’s thesis is broad, naturally, but his observations on education are worth noting.  He describes higher education as the United States’ best industry, and notes “in no other field is the United States’ advantage so overwhelming….Depending on which study you look at, the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has either seven or eight of the world’s top ten universities and either 48 percent or 68 percent of the top 50.”

    Few people believe that U.S. primary and secondary schools deserve similar praise. The school system, the line goes, is in crisis, with its students performing particularly badly in science and math, year after year, in international rankings. But the statistics here, although not wrong, reveal something slightly different. The real problem is one not of excellence but of access. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the standard for comparing educational programs across nations, puts the United States squarely in the middle of the pack. The media reported the news with a predictable penchant for direness: “Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math,” declared The Wall Street Journal.

Poor and minority students score well below the U.S. average, Zakaria notes.  “This will, over time, translate into a competitiveness problem, because if the United States cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy, this will drag down the country. But it does know what works.”

    The U.S. system may be too lax when it comes to rigor and memorization, but it is very good at developing the critical faculties of the mind. It is surely this quality that goes some way in explaining why the United States produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, until recently Singapore’s minister of education, explains the difference between his country’s system and that of the United States: “We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam says. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams. You know how to use people’s talents to the fullest. Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.” This is one reason that Singaporean officials recently visited U.S. schools to learn how to create a system that nurtures and rewards ingenuity, quick thinking, and problem solving.

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